Reading Digital Text, part 1

MyPalA620Terje Hillesund explores the qualities of digital text in comparison to written and printed text in a paper published recently in JoDI. For Hillesund, text is defined as a ‘visual representation of verbal information’. A text cycle ‘consists of the basic phases of writing, producing, storing, representing, distributing and reading’. I’ll discuss the cycle process more in part 2 of my view of the paper (following Jeremy’s lead on this style — good one!). For now, I want to look at the qualities Hillesund delineates as being peculiar to reading digital text (ie: screen-based):

  • The heavy and stationary screens of desktop and laptop computers give static and tiring reading positions.
  • Low resolution and poor type representation causes eye strain.
  • In addition most applications and text formats are designed for the production and distribution of texts (word processors, Web browsers) with little or no concern for the typography of screen reading.

The first point is so true. I’ve started watching more movies on my computer and despite the comfort of my corporate chair it has nothing on my couch. An adjustable configuration of a desk would be good: a chair that changes according to whether you want to sit up or lie down. but more important is the expectations a user brings to a desktop computer — they are frequently aligned with work or at least activity (clicking a mouse and so on). I’ve recently had to rewire my approach to my computer: to change it from being a portal (always on, always networked and always receiving the latest information) to being a place that can be a portal but also can be storage device for my thoughts (a receiver of my information).

The second point I’m not sure about. I know many people suffer from Computer Vision Syndrome but I enjoy reading from a computer. I have always been fascinated by light-boxes and I find the illunimated surface of a computer screen exciting. I do print out many documents still and I did suffer from eye-strain when I first started with computers. For months after working on computers everyday all day I found sunlight too strong. I would crunch my eyelids and my eyes would water every lunchtime. I got used to it though (or suffered irreversable damage). And it is true that poor colour and font choices on screen can make the content hard to read. But these issues I see as part of the process of developing good standards for text on screen; just as the manuscript style developed.

The third point is an interesting one. What is a good typology of screen-reading?

Hillesund, T. (2005) ‘Digital Text Cycles: From Medieval Manuscripts to Modern Markup’ in Journal of Digital Information, Vol. 6, 1, Article No. 309 [Online] Available at:

1 Response to “Reading Digital Text, part 1”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

    In addition most applications and text formats are designed… with little or no concern for the typography of screen reading.

    The third point is an interesting one. What is a good typology of screen-reading?

    Christy, did you mean “typography”? Both are interesting questions - I’m just trying to follow your train of thought.

    Many of the truisms of good typographic design for screen vs. paper have to do with resolution and with the nature of backlit vs. not. It will be interesting to see what first ulta-high definition screens and second smartpaper do to this whole discussion - I expect typographers in 10-15 years will be groaning about people insisting on using san-serif fonts on high resolution smartpaper. After all, the serif was originally designed to aid readability….

Leave a Reply

thesis writing service